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Published: September 19th 2013
A Round Tower
Friends of Steve’s were flying to Malpensa airport to meet us for a few days so, with the help of some recommendations from others, we found a campsite on the shores of Lago Maggiore, with a bus link to Milan. The campsite, situated in a little town called Baveno, near Stresa, was small and quiet (during the day! Unfortunately we quickly realised that there was a club nearby that played its music a few nights a week until around 3am!) and was within walking distance of a little ferry port that ran a ferry boat service to some nearby islands and towns.
We met Steve’s friends: Tammi and Matt, in Stresa where their airport bus dropped them, using the ferry to take us to Stresa and back. This area of Lake Maggiore enjoyed its heyday in the early 1900’s, offering itself as a fashionable resort to visitors from Britain, France and Italy, there are some very grand hotels, the Art Nouveau Regina Palace was opened in 1908, buildings that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a period drama, I could imagine old fashioned motor cars with shiny running boards and luggage racks mounted on the back parked outside. The
little ports of Stresa and Baveno show vintage travel posters from ‘The Golden Age of Travel’ in frames on their waiting room walls. All must have been very elegant and glamorous and is now still very charming.
We caught the train to Milan and, when we arrived at Stazione Porta Garibaldi, headed towards Parco Sempione to have a nose at the castle within its grounds. The Castello Sforzesco was originally built between 1358 and 1370 as a 200 metre long quadrangle with a square tower in each corner; the castle was demolished in 1447. The fella the castle is named after: Francesco Sforza, rebuilt it in 1450, changing the two towers that face the city to round ones as they were more suitable for defence. A lot of restoration work was done to the structure in the late 1800’s and then again after World War II and today Castello Sforzeco is a cultural centre housing some of the city’s museums and collections. Exiting through the main archway we came to a huge fountain in the piazza outside, stopping to get photos before setting course for some lunch along Via Dante. After this, the most important stop of the day,
we wandered towards the Duomo to stare and marvel at its grandness. Milan’s Duomo really does stop you in your tracks, for a start it’s enormous and secondly, the decorativeness of the whole structure is astounding! The cathedral is built from pale marble (apparently special canals had to be dug to transport the heavy marble to the building site) and was begun in 1387, it took so long to complete that its style was adapted a few times and the final finishing touches weren’t added until the 1960’s. It’s possible to climb to the roof and walk amongst the 135 spires for views of the city, the surrounding countryside and the Alps. Across the square, which is absolutely swarming with pigeons, is the poshest shopping ‘mall’ ever! Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is a huge construction of iron and glass, in the shape of a cross, with arches at each entrance. The ceiling vaults show mosaics representing Asia, Africa, Europe and America. On the floors there are pictures of more local subjects: the coats of arms of Vittorio Emanuele's Savoia family, and the symbols of Milan (a red cross on a white field), Rome (a she-wolf) and Florence (an iris). There’s
also one of Turin’s symbol: a bull, looking closely you can see that there’s a hole worn away where his vitals should be. Tradition says that if you dig your heel in to the bull’s testicles and spin backwards three times you will avoid bad luck. So many people have done this that the bull has no testicles left… not so lucky for him then! The shops housed in this extravagant building are those I could only dream of window shopping: Prada and Louis Vuitton to name just a couple, sigh… still, I didn’t come travelling this summer to shop!
To get a good look around the city we hopped on the number 1 tram. The ticket costs 1 Euro 50 and the little orange painted wooden trams dating from the 1920’s rattle along the tracks down Via Manzoni, through Piazza Cordusio and up towards the castle. The tram was quite empty, unlike the version in Lisbon, so we had a good view through the windows as we sat on the varnished wooden benches. Halfway along the journey I was just remarking at how quiet the trams were when at a standstill, having no engine noise or air conditioning
etc. and as the lights changed we remained motionless: it seemed the tram had got stuck! It refused to move, the driver reached for a long metal pole and got out of his cab to have a look, there was shrugging, arm waving, banging various parts of the tram with the pole, exclamations (possibly rude, I couldn’t tell) but to no avail. We wondered how the problem would be rectified as at that point the tram was blocking the tracks, no others can pass! It soon became apparent when the next Number 1 tram rolled up behind us, our driver jumped out again to speak to the newcomer and no sooner had he hopped back in when the driver behind us gave our troublesome tram a little shunt, we were off again! For the rest of the journey we held our breath each time the tram stopped at lights but there were no more issues.
The following day we took the local ferry boat tour from Baveno to Stresa, via three tiny islands: Isola Superiore Dei Pescatori, Isola Bella and Carciano. The boat stopped at each island and we spent an hour or so exploring each one before continuing
on to the next. The grandest of the islands is Isola Bella, dominating the small space is Palazzo Borromeo, a mansion built for the aristocratic Borromeo family in 1632. The house and gardens were structured so as to look like a ship: the villa at the prow and the terraced gardens cascading down the stern in to the water. The mansion now houses the family’s art collection, tapestries and sculptures. Famous guests to the house include Napoleon and Josephine in 1797 and Charles and Diana in 1985. The other islands are fishing communities but they both offer plenty of character, restaurants, local produce shops and places to stay.
We noticed, whilst buying our ferry tickets, that there was an advert for a round trip through Switzerland, co-ordinated by the Lago Maggiore Express. The first part of the trip took us, by Trenitalia Railway from Baveno, Northwest, to Domodossola where we connected to the Centovalli (Hundred Valleys) train that slowly ambles through hills and valleys of the Alps, the scenery is amazing! The train carried us 53 kilometres to its destination in Locarno, Switzerland where we had a couple of hours to kill before catching a ferry boat back to
Baveno. Locarno itself is not much to write about to be honest, there are a lot of ugly, flat roofed, square hotels, apartments and shops that were probably built between the 1950’s and 70’s, they haven’t aged well and they look a bit grubby and soulless but the boat journey south passes, and stops, at some very pretty, very ‘Italian’ towns and villages, so between this and the gorgeous scenery amongst the mountains, Locarno is just a brief blot. A few Peroni were consumed on the return boat journey as we watched the sun disappear behind the hills. A lovely week.
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